Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Fig & Apricot Orange Cake with Spiced Wine Syrup for St. Nicholas’s Day
Tomorrow December 6th is St. Nicholas’s Day. In Greece, St. Nicholas (or St. Nikolaos) does not bear gifts – rather he is the patron saint of sailors, travelers, and children – particularly orphans. In that region, he’s often depicted fresh from another ship rescue, drenched in seawater and covered with seaweed.
In fact traditionally, Christmas in Greece is not the apex of celebration that it is in English-speaking cultures. Instead, the day is marked with religious services and a feast to end a 40-day Lent. The real flurry of preparation, and gift shopping occurs in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. That’s when homes are decorated, presents are wrapped, bonfires are lit, and when more Westernized homes put up their Christmas tree. And it’s St. Basil who brings the gifts to open on New Year’s Day.
But St. Nicholas’s feast day is still a joyous occasion that’s happily anticipated by children across the country for its name-day parties. Nicholas is a popular name, and any child named in the saint’s honor is celebrated with something akin to a birthday party.
The rounds made from house to house can become Bacchanalian for young and old alike. Adults are served brandy, wine, and seasonal sweets – somewhat grueling when you consider how many Nicholas’s they may have to visit. This cake, scented with the season’s fresh oranges, studded with the region’s walnuts, dried grapes, figs, and apricots, and drizzled with fragrant spiced wine syrup, is just the sort of thing you might be served.
This is a traditional preparation, but it’s just as often seasoned with the Greeks’ beloved mastic as with cinnamon and cloves, and you should feel free to experiment if you have any handy. The olive oil adds an unexpected fruity punch, and I think you’ll agree that this is a delightfully Mediterranean twist on the classic Christmas fruitcakes we prepare in the States and Britain. This one’s better the next day, which makes it perfect for the feast tomorrow. Happy St. Nicholas’s Day!
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup almond flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 large pinch kosher salt
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
2 ½ tbsp orange zest
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cups orange juice (preferably freshly squeezed)
½ cup brandy
½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
½ cup black raisins
½ cup chopped dried figs
½ cup chopped dried apricots
2 cups red wine
1 cup granulated sugar
4 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise pod
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
confectioner's sugar for dusting
extra orange zest for serving, in narrow strips
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Brush a deep loaf pan with olive oil and line with parchment paper that comes up out of the sides of the pan by at least 2 inches.
Sift together the flour, almond flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Sprinkle in the orange zest and stir to distribute evenly.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil and sugar. Add to the dry ingredients with the orange juice and brandy and stir until only just combined. Add the walnuts and dried fruit and stir briefly to combine.
Pour the batter into the loaf pan, place the loaf pan onto a sheet pan to protect your oven against overflow, and bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour to 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until a wooden skewer comes out of the center almost clean.
Meanwhile, make the spiced wine syrup. In a medium pan, combine the wine, sugar, spices, and citrus zest. Place over low heat and stir until the sugar’s dissolved. Simmer over low heat until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain and reserve.
Cool the cake on a rack for at least 30 minutes before removing from its pan. Just before serving, dust with confectioner's sugar through a sieve. Slice and serve drizzled with warm wine syrup and topped with a few slivers of orange zest.